Incorporated in 1870, New Sweden was one of the nation’s first planned communities.
William Widgery Thomas (1839-1927) was a politician and diplomat from Portland. He self-described as a “colonizer,” and was a driving force of European emigration to Maine. He served multiple terms in the Maine State Legislature, and as the American Minister to Sweden and Norway for 15 years, under the appointment of three presidents.
Thomas was dismayed that the majority of Scandinavians bypassed Maine and headed to the Midwest and Western states.
To entice Swedish immigrants to stay in Maine, Thomas worked with the Maine Legislature to provide public assistance—100 acres of land, a log home, provisions, seed stock, and money—to the first immigrant Swedes.
William Widgery Thomas' Commissioner of Immigration certificate, Portland, 1870
Item 102763 info
Maine Historical Society
Governor Joshua Chamberlain appointed William Widgery Thomas as Maine’s first—and only—Commissioner of Immigration in March of 1870, after the Maine State Legislature approved a bill to support a Swedish colony.
Less than four months after passing the legislation, Thomas had traveled to Sweden where he recruited 22 men, 11 women, and 18 children, moved them across the Atlantic, and settled them into their town of New Sweden, located in Aroostook County.
Thomas’s commission was disbanded in 1873, after the success of New Sweden was secure. Though he was “Commissioner of Immigration,” Thomas never recruited people from other countries.
Thomas felt that Scandinavians would settle well in Maine, stating, “Aroostook is enough like Scandinavia to make the Swede and Norwegian feel at once at home, and enough milder and richer to keep him contented.”
Two of New Sweden’s first settlers were the Olsons; Nils Olson served as the first lay preacher and religious leader.
Thomas personally chose the applicants for immigration. All the men were farmers, among them a lay pastor, a civil engineer, a blacksmith, carpenters, a basketmaker, a wheelwright, a baker, a tailor and a shoe maker. Thomas noted the women were diligent workers, and, “All were tall and stalwart, with blue eyes, blonde hair and cheerful, honest faces.”
The New Sweden Lutheran Church was formed in 1871, one short year after the founding of New Sweden in 1870. Joining to form the First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church of New Sweden were 61 men, 51 women and 109 children under the leadership of Pastor Andrew Wiren.
The first church home was in the original building which housed the New Sweden Historical Museum. This building burned in 1970 with a replica being built on the same site a few years latter. The original altar rail was saved and is currently on the second floor.
On August 16, 1874 the Church Constitution was adopted with 67 members signing the document. At this point members of the Board of Directors began to look for a suitable lot upon which a permanent church could be constructed. A lot on Capitol Hill Road was found and construction began.
The church bell was a direct gift from W.W. Thomas, the founder of the Swedish Colony and dedicated July 23, 1880.
In July, 1896 the name Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church was adopted replacing the original name, The First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church.
By 1873 New Sweden’s population had increased from 50 to 600. In his annual report to the Legislature for 1873, Thomas recommended that all special State aid to New Sweden end, as the community was, after three years, self-sustaining.
Nils E. Olson, of New Sweden, played the double sided violin, and made the one he holds in this photograph.
Mr. and Mrs. Anders Olson arrived in New Sweden in May 3, 1872. They settled on East Road, lot 124.
Sven and Carolina Svenson were among the first Swedish Colony settlers in 1870. Sven was New Sweden's first mail carrier.
Maine Governor Joshua Chamberlain called New Sweden “one of the most important achievements in the history of Maine” in 1870, and commended the legislature for “the most liberal policy on the part of the State, to support and foster it…and the speedy settlement of our great wilderness domain.”
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